The sun sets over the James River in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

For much of his first year in office, Gov. Ralph Northam has gotten himself crosswise with the environmental groups that were big backers of his 2017 campaign.

The relationship has steadily devolved — from the reappointment of Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor in the spring to the governor’s steadfast determination to do as little as possible about a pair of contentious pipeline projects over the summer — before flaring into very public acrimony last month.

That’s when Northam yanked two members off the State Air Pollution Control Board air board and has had trouble explaining it as anything but an attempt to guard against the defeat of a permit Dominion Energy needs for a compressor station, part of its Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

But eager to find something nice to say about Northam, environmental groups cheered his announcement Wednesday that he would seek what his office called “the largest investment in water quality needs in the history of the commonwealth and the largest dedication of consistent clean water funding ever.”

The governor proposes dedicating $90 million per year by the 2020 fiscal year to the agricultural best management practices cost share program, which helps the farmers who are a significant source of nutrient and sediment pollution that winds up in the Chesapeake Bay implement a suite of projects, from fencing cattle out of streams to planting buffers along waterways, carefully managing fertilizer and planting cover crops to reduce erosion, among others.

“This year’s funding is approximately $30 million,” Ofirah Yheskel, the governor’s spokeswoman, said. “The needs are determined by an advisory group of farm and conservation stakeholders, and they have determined the annual need to be $90 million. It’s my understanding that historically, the program’s funding has varied year to year, sometimes going totally unmet.”

That’s almost all of the money the Virginia Conservation Network, a consortium of more than 100 organizations, asked for in a letter to the governor last month.

Northam’s proposal delivers on another ask from conservationists, dedicating $50 million to the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, a grant program that helps localities reduce stormwater pollution, another major contributor to the problems in the Chesapeake Bay.

The governor is also calling for a modest $2.5 million increase in the Department of Environmental Quality’s budget — the total agency budget is currently a little more than $200 million — that falls far short of the nearly $61 million environmental groups asked for to bring the department back to its pre-recession level.

Still, they found a lot to like.

“Virginia’s natural resources are vital to our environment, economy, and way of life, yet remain underfunded. With state finances in strong shape, now is the perfect opportunity for Virginia to catch up with neighboring states that have long invested more in their lands and waters,” said Rebecca Tomazin, Virginia executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“Gov. Northam is proposing historic support that will keep us on the path to clean water. This level of commitment will be needed from our legislators when they set final funding levels in the upcoming General Assembly session.”

Mike Town, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, who recently said Northam had “immensely marred” his standing with environmental groups over the air board power play, was also effusive.

“These investments are a clear signal from Gov. Northam that conservation will remain a priority of his administration going forward, and a necessary down payment to meet his goals of increasing natural resources funding to two percent of the general fund,” Town said in a statement.

“It is now up to the General Assembly to do the right thing for conservation, our economy and for Virginians in every corner of the commonwealth by fully funding Northam’s blueprint for clearer water, protected lands and a healthier environment.”

The GOP still controls both chambers of the General Assembly, albeit by a razor thin margin, heading into the session that starts next month. It’s also an election year, with every seat in the House and Senate up for grabs in 2019.

Do GOP lawmakers in competitive districts play ball in the hopes of appealing to moderate voters in what could be another bruising election cycle for Virginia Republicans?

Or do they dig in their heels and deny Northam any environmental funding increases?

Hard to say. But what seems clear is that Northam’s bid to rehabilitate his conservation credentials as the pipeline uproar continues will likely take more than his budget proposal.

Earlier this week, Northam tweeted a call to climate action, referencing a Washington Post op-ed he co-authored with Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. The response wasn’t pretty.

And it went on:

And on:

And on:

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]